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How to make free or cheap international calls

Man on a video call with woman

Local calling plans aren't always enough in today's highly connected world. If you're living in the UK away from home, or you have friends and family overseas, then you don't want to miss out on conversations with them.

Sending messages over WhatsApp and social media might be fine for those occasional day-to-day updates. But when you want to talk about something important, or just have a casual chat with distant friends and family, nothing beats a phone call.

So to help you save money, here's your complete guide to how to make cheap international calls.

Cheap and free international phone calls: the key points

  • Internet telephone (VoIP) is the cheapest way to call internationally.
  • You can use apps such as WhatsApp, FaceTime, or Skype to speak to other users of the app for free.
  • Some VoIP apps can also call landline and mobile numbers, but there will be a fee.
  • When using a standard telephone, international phone cards or inclusive calling bundles will be the cheapest option.

Making free calls over the internet

The easiest way to tap into international calling without the added expense of global fees is to use VoIP calling.

VoIP stands for Voice over Internet Protocol. What this means is that instead of using the standard Public Switch Telephone Network (PSTN), VoIP connects over the internet.

The great thing about VoIP is that you can make calls either through a regular phone that you connect to a VoIP router or a smartphone or computer app with a headset.

If you're making international calls, VoIP is usually a lot cheaper than using a standard telephone contract. In fact, if you call someone using the same app then it will usually be free! 

Unfortunately, VoIP isn't perfect. Call quality can suffer depending on the internet connection; the lower your broadband speed or more unreliable your connectivity, the more lag and dropped calls you'll have on a VoIP call.

Other problems with VoIP include:

  • Many packages come with a minimum spend requirement.
  • Call quality can vary depending on your VoIP provider.
  • You may need to spend more on better broadband.
  • VoIP calls can eat up a lot of data if you're using your smartphone and a Wi-Fi connection.

What broadband speed do I need for VoIP?

The main thing to remember when using VoIP is that your call quality will be dependent on your internet connection.

Skype, one of the most popular VoIP calling apps, requires a speed of around 300KB for download and upload for basic screen sharing and video calling. You'll need at least 500KB for HD video calling. The more people you add to a conference, the more your recommended speed will increase.

In general, anyone with an ADSL broadband connection capable of at least a couple of megabits-per-second (Mbps) will be able to use VoIP. But if your internet speed is very slow (just a couple of Mbps or less) or unreliable, you may find that VoIP is not the best option.

The best free VoIP apps

There are plenty of free VoIP apps available in the UK today, including:

  • Apple FaceTime: FaceTime is Apple's answer to Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp. This free tool is extremely popular and comes preinstalled on iPhone and iPad.
  • Discord: Excellent for instant chatting and calls over the internet. This group-chat tool is most popular among gamers, who use it to stay connected with their team members when they play. The call quality is usually quite good.
  • Facebook Messenger: One of the better-known options for VoIP calls today, Facebook Messenger is primarily used for instant messaging, but it also supports video and voice calls too. Facebook Messenger is an easy solution, but it can use up a lot of data.
  • Google Duo: One of the most recent videos calling apps to emerge from the Google portfolio, Google Duo offers both video and voice conferencing. You will need your friends and family to download Duo if you want this app to work.
  • Skype: Probably the best-known option for cheap international calls. Skype gives all users an easy way to send instant messages, share screens, and host video or voice calls. You can even record calls using Skype or call a landline or mobile number directly.
  • Signal: One of the best VoIP apps for people in search of privacy; this application has state-of-the-art encryption, security, and privacy features. It also integrates with existing phone numbers and contact lists.
  • Viber: Viber might not have a huge user base all around the world, but it is growing increasingly popular. With this app, you get a full-fledged VoIP service, including chat functionality, stockers, and voice calls.
  • WhatsApp: An easy-to-use app for your smartphone, WhatsApp is incredibly popular for messaging, but it's also available for voice and video calling too. You can even integrate your address book into the app.

Calling landlines and mobiles from VoIP

Most VoIP apps will require the person you're calling to use the same application. But you may be able to contact someone via their mobile or landline number...for a price. This is a useful feature if you can't get the other person to download the app, or you want to use VoIP to call a regular number for less than it would cost using a mobile or landline.

Best free VoIP to phone services

Companies that offer VoIP to Phone service include:

  • KeepCalling: Rates start at around 0.6p a minute to Canada, 0.9p a minute to India, or 0.6p a minute to China.
  • Skype: The price to call phones from Skype will depend on the country you're calling. For instance, calls to the US cost £2.40 per month.
  • Rebtel: Rebtel offers international calling to 51 countries for £5 per month.
  • Vyke: Calls start at less than 1p per minute, depending on where you're calling.

Making international calls with override providers

Override providers are companies that allow you to call international numbers from any phone by going through an "access number." Most override providers are quite expensive, but you can find good deals. Though this kind of call is still more costly than using VoIP, it could be an ideal solution for people who don't make regular international calls.

Providers include:

  • 18185: An easy-to-use alternative to cheap international calling sim card options. Signing up is free, and you only pay for the calls you use.
  • JustCall: An affordable cloud phone system designed for business users - the service starts at around £40 per user per month.
  • Vonage: A global provider that allows businesses and individuals to set up calls with overseas contacts.

Home phone plans with inclusive international calls

As home phone providers continue to struggle to maintain the attention of their customers, some are beginning to offer things like international call add-on packages for home phones. If you make international calls frequently, this could be a good option for you.

Each provider has a different approach to international calls. Some companies will provide a discount on standard international call costs. Others will make it free to call selected countries. You may also have a time limit on the international calls you make, which could easily lead to extra charges if you go over your limit (but you can hang up and redial to reset the time limit).

You can choose an international call package when joining your broadband and phone provider or add it later on. There is usually no minimum contract term, so call packages can be added and removed without penalty.

Making international calls with mobile phones

Just like landline phone providers, mobile phone contract providers can sometimes offer cheap international call sim cards and bolt-on options for your mobile contract.

Again, the rules around these calls will differ depending on the provider you choose. Some options include:

  • EE: With EE Calling abroad, you can make international calls from 1p a minute, or use the International Pack, or International Extra Pack to make cheaper bulk calls.
  • O2: The International Bolt-on pack from O2 gives you calls to international landlines and mobiles for 1p a minute for a subscription rate of £3 per month.
  • Three: Three offers calling and texting to landlines in around 20 countries for 3p a minute. You can also find cheaper deals on the company's website.

International SIM cards

Some mobile phone providers also offer SIM cards that are specifically aimed at international calls. On the one hand, these SIM cards are easy to use, as you simply replace them with your existing SIM. However, a quick international SIM card comparison will show you that many of these SIMs are still quite expensive - and only suitable for irregular calling.

If you're travelling out of the country and want to stay connected on the move, then it might be cheaper to get a card abroad.
Two of the most popular options for international SIM cards include:

  • O2: O2's foreign SIM covers a wide selection of countries and allows you to make calls for 1p a minute to a landline, or 5p a minute to mobiles.
  • Lycamobile: Lycamobile can provide international SIMs that work in countries all over the world. You can choose your SIM based on the amount of data and minutes you need.

International phonecards

Finally, if none of the options that we've mentioned so far is suitable for you, then you could always consider looking into international phonecards.

International phone cards have been a popular product in countries all around the world for quite some time now. They're useful because you can decide exactly how much you want to pay on your card, so there's no risk of going over your budget. You can also use these cards from any phone without any additional software.

However, if you're going to making international calls regularly, phone cards are rarely the cheapest option.

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